Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Citizens to Study Commission: 'Give Us Ballot Initiative'

More than 35 people crammed into Mount Joy's small Borough Hall, Tuesday night, for a chance to air their questions and comments regarding the Government Study Commission's Draft of a Home Rule Charter (available here).

Among its more significant changes, the Charter proposes to:
> increase the number of Commissioners to 5, with staggered terms and with 1 seat guaranteed to the minority political party
> create the position of a County Executive to oversee the administrative functions of County government
> establish an Office of Management and Budget
> establish a politically balanced Board of Elections
> consolidate certain row offices, and> allow citizens to place, by collection of a thousand signatures ("initiative"), resolutions before the Commissioners for a vote.

One point of division among the audience (and the Commission) concerned whether citizens, after collecting signatures, should have the ability to place questions on the ballot. Unlike most initiative processes, the draft Charter does not call for a public vote.

Currently, the Charter only provides the electorate with the ability to place resolutions before the Commissioners for a definitive up or down vote (inaction results in passage by default).

Carl Moyer of Lancaster Township passionately voiced his opinion that the populace at large is prone to emotional appeals and pointed out that, as written, the citizens can sufficiently build momentum for an issue "by demanding a vote, and then a re-vote, and then another re-vote."

"I read newspapers and magazines from the State of Vermont. I have a daughter living in California. It is a disaster," Moyer said.

Randy Goodling of Elizabethtown disagreed.

"A charter without a strong and powerful initiative and referendum section is a very weak charter," he said, adding that he would like to see the powers of recall elections, votes of no confidence, and citizen ballot initiatives added.

In response to questioning from NewsLanc as to whether the position of Commissioner would become a part-time one, like that of school board members and council members, the Study Commission indicated that the Charter does not specifically address that matter, deferring to more of a "whatever it takes" approach.

Salaries of the commissioners remain the same no matter how many hours they work.

Government Study Commission members Bill Saylor and James Miller both indicated that they fully expect that the task of the commissioners would remain essentially "full time."

Miller said that the workload will remain comparable while the concentration changes to a "more global functioning," including conferring with the Planning Commission and the municipalities on matters of importance.

Saylor said, "To me, the role of the County Commissioner is not diminished at all by this Charter."

Challenged by commission member Sam Mecum, Goodling conceded that he thinks ballot initiatives should be limited to certain subjects. Goodling said that he believes decisions including the sale of Conestoga View and the expenditure of County funds on the Convention Center should have been subjected to a public vote. "Initiative and referendum are really the backbone of what a Home Rule Charter is," he said.

Commission member James Miller expressed doubt that citizens will ever vote for a tax increase on the ballot, no matter how noble the purpose. Miller said that "the Founding Fathers established us as a republic, not a democracy," arguing that town hall meetings do not produce sound decisions, especially on complex matters.

Commission member Heidi Wheaton favors citizen ballot initiative. She cited a study by a University of Southern California professor on citizen initiatives and fiscal gridlock concluding that they "do not appear to be a significant obstacle to balancing the state budget in California."

The study Wheaton cited also noted that 24 states have citizen ballot initiative. She said she considers ballot initiative necessary for Lancaster County to control its escalating level of debt.

Commission Chairwoman Carol Phillips asked for a show of hands among those present as to who favors a strengthened section on citizen initiative, including permitting citizens the ability to place at least certain kinds of questions on the ballot. All but about 10 of those present raised their hands.

Phillips promised that the Commission will reconsider the subject of initiative, and other citizen input, before its vote on the Home Rule Charter on May 6.

The next and final public hearing before the May 6 vote is this Saturday, May 3, at 9 a.m. at the Garden Spot Village in New Holland.